Conquer Your Core!

Three yoga asanas (postures) to empower midlife women. *as seen in Menopause Matters Summer 2023

Most of us will have had some personal experience at some point in life in dealing with an incompetent manager at work. Well, there is a distinct correlation between such a manager and ineffective core!

In any organisation you can find managers that are great at delegating the tasks that ought to be completed by them, as they sit at their desk eating crispy creme donuts, or pontificating in some way, whilst the delegates are rushing to get the manager’s job done.

And whilst this manager maintains his authority, the employees around him/her are becoming increasingly worn out and tired with the extra workload which hasn’t been accounted for.

Do you recognise this trait in your abdominals and core?

Let me explain …

The core is the central part of the body, that provides stability to movement and comprising of as many as 35 different muscle groups connecting into the pelvis from the spine and hip area.  The abdominal region, glutes and back muscles have some of the most important muscles in the body that protect the abdominal organs, whilst providing stability, balance, and good posture. Not unlike the role of a manger who oversees the running of the company as well as provide the stability for the employees to work from a strong foundation.

The abdomen consists of four main muscles: the rectus abdominis, linea alba, transverse abdominis, and the internal and external obliques. Each of these muscles contribute to your abdominal structure, but the deepest layer of abdominal muscles, and the most important, is your transverse abdominis as it acts like a corset to the core.

So, let us call the abdomen the manager and his three assistants!

This manager, over time, along with his assistants has let everything slip, becoming lazier and less productive. Sending what ought to be their workload to the coworkers, that is, other parts of the body, most notably the shoulders, knees, and back.

With this extra load taken on by these body parts, eventually something is going to give.

In other words, an injury is bound to occur. When this happens, we can either just focus on the injury or issue in that isolated area, or we can see if there may be an underlying cause.

In this case, the underlying cause was ineffective abdominal stabilisation, or incompetent management skills.

Basically, we need a strong core to carry our body most effectively. Compromised core stability causes an unstable base with limited control in the lower extremities in functional movement, increasing risk of injury.

How core strength helps to prevent injury

Experts have concluded that well-coordinated core muscle use stabilises the spine and helps create a firm base of support for all movements, including simple basic movements such as reaching up to a shelf or bending down to pick up something.

The Functional Movement Screen (FMS) was developed as an injury risk screening tool in the 1990s by physiotherapists Gray Cook and Lee Burton. It is based on the idea that movements are built on the seven basic movement patterns. In their studies they found most injuries are caused by an inability to perform these movements correctly.

They discovered through intervention programs targeted at improving general mobility and core stability can improve movement patterns.

Firefighters put on a program to improve balance and core stability showed a 63% reduction of injury. A similar program was used on a study of professional footballers, with focus on mobility and core stability.  This also revealed a reduction of injury as well as improved symmetry in use of left and right side of the body.

Studies have also been conducted with women sustaining knee injuries, which showed a significant reduction of knee injuries when employing proper core muscular control.

Since further evaluating it is now recommended that core strength and endurance training be practiced in a multi-faceted and progressive order:

  1. Muscle recruitment
  2. Core stability
  3. Dynamic

The power of posture

Posture also relates closely to the core muscles. Good posture ensures the state of muscles and skeleton can best protect the organs and prevent injury regardless of movement.

Core strengthening is key to everything. It’s not just about the way I look, but about stabilizing my body so I can perform better on stage.”

Paul Stanley

Florence P. Kendall was the foremost and most influential physiotherapist in the USA and considered the mother of physiotherapy. She worked with the plum line, which is a vertical line drawn straight down the body to show the correct alignment of posture. The four main types of misalignments are sway back, lordosis/kyphosis, flat back, and military back. By strengthening and connecting with the core, the spine relies less on the back muscles, and immensely improves posture.

A Harvard health report published in 2021 regarding the importance of abdominal strength, identified overall that core stability helps reduce back injury. However, the report also identifies that core strength building needs to be included with other exercise to impact overall health.

2-3 times a week was recommended for endurance strength training.

Core strength/endurance training benefits

For midlife women it is in our interest to develop core strength and endurance, to benefit and protect our aging body for the following reasons:

  • Improve stability and balance.
  • Develop muscle tone.
  • Reduce subcutaneous fat.
  • Improve basic mobility.
  • Decrease back pain.
  • Improve posture.
  • Protect abdominal organs.
  • Reduce injuries.

Most standing yoga postures demand core strength and endurance for proficiency. The fast twitch fibres in the abdominal muscles respond and perform best to minimal repetitions performed at high intensity. Classical yoga postures are ideal for developing strength and endurance as they were designed to be held in stillness for a period of time rather than as a series of repeated movements.

3 yoga asanas for core strength/endurance development

Best practiced in this order as they follow the recommended progression as explained above. For the best results they would be included as part of your regular exercise routine or yoga practice, alongside a healthy diet.

1. Utkatasana- Chair pose

A great posture for employing muscle recruitment. Strengthens the ankles, thighs, calves, and spine.  Stretches the shoulders and chest.  Stimulates the abdominal organs, diaphragm, and heart.

Here’s how to do it:

  • Stand in tadasana (mountain pose) with feet together or hip width apart.
  • Inhale arms into Anjali mudra (prayer position) at the heart centre or straighten the arms above the head.
  • Exhale bending the knees into a seated position.
  • Inhale and extend the spine upwards as much as possible.
  • Exhale tucking the tail bone under to activate the abdominal muscles taking care to avoid hyperextension in the lower back or chest.
  • Remain here for 5-10 slow breaths.
  • Inhale up to standing and lower the hands down to tadasana.
  • Repeat.

2. Vasisthasana – Side plank

Plank and side plank are commonly used in modern exercise to strengthen the core, but this variation takes the pressure off the wrists to protect the wrist joints, which become areas of degenerative concern as we age. Visthasana is a powerful posture for the arms, shoulders, and abdominals, particularly the obliques, which are either side of the abdominal area. Because of the weight bearing demand on the shoulders, this should not be practiced with a shoulder injury.

  • Start in extended child pose (balasana), kneeling on the floor, body folded over the knees, with arms extended on the floor in front the head (balasana).
  • Keeping the forearms on the floor lift your bottom to step the feet back.
  • Align your shoulder directly above the elbow, with feet placed so that your body is in a straight diagonal line. N.B. You can stay here for as long as is comfortable to strengthen the entire core.
  • Shift your weight onto your right forearm turning your right foot so the outer part of the foot is on the floor.
  • Place the left inner foot either in front of the right for an easier balance or stack the leg directly on top of the right as illustrated.
  • Bring the body into a straight line firming the thighs, buttocks, and abdominals, pushing down the heels and forearms into the floor.
  • Hold here for 5-10 breaths or up to a minute.

3. Virabhadrasana III – Warrior III

Virabhadrasana III is a balance that requires concentration and stamina. Through the mastery of drawing energy in towards the core whilst expanding out through the limbs, harmony, poise, and power can be found.  It helps to contract and tone the abdominal muscles whilst developing strong and shapely legs. It gives vigour and agility and is excellent for runners!

  • Stand in tadasana (mountain pose).
  • Place your arms either alongside your body or raise them up alongside your ears.
  • Root down through your left foot, to prepare for lifting the right foot.
  • Keeping the hips parallel to the floor, slowly exhale hinging the body forward whilst your right leg lifts of the floor maintaining a perfect line with the upper body.
  • Hinge as far as you can maintain stability without compromising the straight side line of the body, either with arms alongside the body (1), or above the head alongside the ears, palms facing one another (2).
  • Contract the abdominals and imagine a band like corset containing your entire lower torso, whilst focusing on extending out through the limbs.
  • Stay here for 5-10 breaths, or as long as you can.
  • Exhale and return to tadasana.
  • Repeat on the other side.

Ceri Lee BA (hons) is a senior yoga teacher, midlife mentor and owner of the Yoga Light Centre, an independent yoga studio with guest accommodation in North Wales. From here she teaches weekly yoga classes and has recorded her specialist online series including Moving into Midlife 5-day Mini Series. She offers midlife mentorship programs, 1-1 yoga tuition, and regularly runs yoga retreats around the world.